Directed by William A. Wellman
Starring James Cagney, Jean Harlow and Edward Woods
Produced by Warner Bros. Pictures
It's the turn of the century and for Tommy and Matt, a couple of kids in the city, there's no end to the opportunities available, so long as you don't mind breaking a law or two. As they grow up, the scores become bigger and they start getting jobs from their fence, Putty Nose. Unfortunately, a job goes south and their boss skips town.
Never ones for sitting idly by, the boys join up with Paddy Ryan's gang just as Prohibition opens the floodgates for gang activity. Soon, Tommy and Matt are stealing booze and "persuading" local speakeasies to stock their product. Everyone's happy except Tommy's straight-laced brother Mike who has just returned from World War I.
Tommy is enjoying a life of women and booze, while Matt looks to settle down. However, when a gang war breaks out, Tommy and Matt are caught in the crossfire. Can either of them escape the life they have fallen into? And why is Jean Harlow the second name in these credits?
In watching The Public Enemy, you can't help but see the prototype for most mob films of the last century. The appeal of the stories are pretty simple and straightforward:
Escalation and stakes.
We always seem to start with the small time hood, begging the bosses for a modest payout. You show some guts and initiative, you move up. But the tasks become worse. The question of every gangster film is fundamentally do the ends justify the means? Can you have it all and not lose your soul?
For Tommy Powers (James Cagney), living the gangster life is worth anything. It gives him power and money, but it also provides a second family.
Tommy has two brothers in the movie. His real brother Mike holds an honest job, goes to night school and cares for their mother. His mob brother Matt is willing to go along with whatever the latest score is. We all know which brother Tommy is going to choose. Mike is a chump and Matt is the guy you go to war with.
Tommy doesn't just have a brother though. He has a father or two. First, small time boss "Putty Nose" teaches him the value of loyalty and honor by betraying him. Tommy learns his lesson and, when he joins Paddy Ryan's gang, he is cautious at first. Once he decides Paddy is trustworthy? Tommy is 100 percent his man.
It's impossible to overstate how good James Cagney is here. On paper, you should absolutely hate Tommy. Cagney infuses the character with a combination of mischievousness and charm that is absolutely compelling on the screen. True stars have a natural charisma and Cagney is blessed with that in spades.
Jean Harlow gets second billing here based on name recognition, but she is barely in this film. Tommy is not looking for a commitment and Harlow's Gwen fits the bill perfectly as a woman attracted to bad boys.
As the movie raced towards its conclusion, there was a moment I thought it would flinch and not follow Tommy's tale through to its logical end. Fortunately, the film zigs and zags in its final frames and gives us the perfect final image.
The Public Enemy is not a great film for its time; it's a great film, period. Highly recommend for the prototypical mob story as brought to you by a true movie star.
***** out of *****
NOTE: There's a scene where Cagney is being shot at and he ducks behind a wall as chunks of the brick are struck by bullets. How'd they pull off the effect? By actually firing bullets at the wall inches from Cagney's face.